The following is an article I wrote for Fortnight Journal in Spring 2012, during the course of writing Old Friend for the pianist Kirill Gerstein. Since Fortnight is now defunct, they’ve kindly given me permission to re-publish it here.
It’s not quite a conviction, more of a nagging suspicion, that I get each time I’m faced with the task of writing a new piece: it’s finally happened, the jig’s up, you’ve altogether run out of ideas. Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.
There are plenty of historical examples of composers who actually did “run out of ideas”. Aaron Copland spent his last two decades conducting his own previous works; Charles Ives was stymied working on his wildly impracticable Universe Symphony, falling silent for the following 35 years; around the same time, Sibelius’s inability to complete an eighth symphony cast the last 30 years of his life into self-destructive depression. The pop world can be even harsher; there’s a kind of critical glee when an artist fails to live up to the creative promise of their 20’s.
There’s something about being a composer which feels slightly fraudulent. It’s a far less Promethean occupation than the “composer” of popular consciousness. Writing music is more like refashioning something which already existed, had always existed; it’s making a sufficiently unrecognizable collage out of other peoples’ materials. Adding to this perception is the fact that it can be so much fun (people pay me to do this?) and that much of the process doesn’t feel like “work” in the traditional sense, at least not how I do it.
This week’s “work” is starting on a new piece for solo piano. Again, by all appearances, I am not exactly working, but instead playing through Chopin’s third Scherzo rather badly. I am enjoying myself immensely. Sight-reading, as opposed to goal-oriented practicing, is very freeing. You don’t have to stop and sort out all the little technical problems of learning a piece, instead you just revel in its particular world, enjoy the sounds of the piano, the blocky chords and approximated arpeggios. In the moment, you manage to convince yourself of the brilliance of your own seat-of-the-pants interpretation—yes, that’s how Chopin meant for it to be played!—even though you’ve put in no careful thought and consideration, only tried one of a thousand possibilities. In the Chopin Scherzo, my “revelation” is to take absolutely no liberties with the tempo—I’m playing every rhythm exactly as notated. This is the kind of extremist approach that may eventually lead to a useful approach to the piece, but in its unadulterated form sounds more like a stubborn bulldozer.
Still, the bulldozer approach has some merit—particularly in the middle section, where that beautiful block chord chorale alternates with fantastic-sounding descending arpeggios from the top of the keyboard. Understandably, most pianists I’ve heard take their time here; it’s a deeply expressive passage, full of satisfying harmonic shifts and suspensions (little held-over notes which, when added to an unsuspecting chord, make it sound even better—like harmonic salt). The disadvantage of all this swooning is that one loses the sense of forward momentum. It’s just chords and arpeggios randomly situated in time, rather than a long melody stretched over a harmonic progression leading to an inevitable conclusion. Some rhythmic discipline seems to be in order.
What is it about those arpeggios that sound so good?—better than a normal arpeggio, which is just a chord with its notes played one after another rather than at the same time. These have a real tune embedded within them, one that you can sing (sort of) and which leads the listener down the keyboard in an inexorable sequence. I start fooling around with the figure, leading even further, down to the muddiest depths of the piano, making it modulate and start again, even overlap with other occurrences of itself, in different keys and at different rates. Might be something there. I often get ideas this way, making the jump from the interpretive (pianist) to the creative (composer) side of me. I’ve become interested lately in embedding harmonic change in the actual musical material, instead of simply imposing change onto existing material—constant change becoming a foundation on which the music develops. Absent-mindedly butchering a bit of Chopin may have showed me a way to apply this abstraction to my new piano piece.
My New Piano Piece starts with a big section based on the skeletal melody I extracted from Chopin. I’ve arranged it to start at opposite ends of the keyboard, the two hands moving toward each other at the center. When they meet, they keep going downward—but the melody also starts again at both ends, displaced by half a beat, necessitating flying leaps in both hands in order to play both things at once. These individual entrances—a canon of sorts—build up momentum, volume, and harmonic density, and things start to go a bit haywire. New canonic entrances start to appear where they shouldn’t, certain lines accelerate wildly, and before long it’s a black snarl of notes, octaves and arpeggios moving up and down the keyboard all at once, crossing each other and starting again. This may be the most difficult and outwardly virtuosic thing I’ve written in quite awhile.
Through this first section, the rising left hand notes gradually morph into their own new idea—a cycle built from five-note groups which is like a machine for changing keys, constantly doubling back on itself, rising and falling unpredictably but always in strict rhythm. Before too long, these quintuplets are the only thing going, first loud and brilliant, rising to the very top of the keyboard, then mirrored by a soft and gentle response.
The quintuplets wind down, leaving the music open and rather spare. A new version of the opening melody is played very high, but it has a new character, also inciting harmonic change. It sounds a bit fugal now, like a piece of Bach-ian counterpoint—which, in fact, it is, though the following section sounds quite unlike Bach. It owes more of a debt, in fact, to the music of Conlon Nancarrow, who wrote intensely complex contrapuntal pieces for his own modified player-pianos. His canonic voices move at different speeds, wander all over the keyboard, seemingly independent of each other but in fact fitting together in a precisely calculated way. My Nancarrow section is not quite as complex—it’s going to be played by a human being, remember—but it has the same quality of stumbling back, lurching forward, and not quite settling into a followable rhythmic groove. Eventually the voices do come together, though, and the music becomes more of a straight chorale—that is, independent voices moving in harmonic and rhythmic unity. It’s still a fugue, actually, though each new appearance of the subject finds it slightly different, as well as transposed by a half-step.
After winding itself up and becoming quite loud, the fugue trails off slowly, overtaken by an almost lullaby-like sequence (a rhythm which repeats while modulating). There is an almost-referential quality to this music, as though it could be from a 19th-century waltz—expect that it’s not formed into predictable units of eight and sixteen bars, instead wandering slowly down the keyboard, growing hazy in a wash of grace-notes in different keys. The sequence is answered by short, upward-moving chorales low in the bass, hinting at a similar theme in the Chopin scherzo. This trade-off between the high, waltzy music and the low chorale continues for several more iterations, each time building to a slightly louder dynamic and a more urgent harmony. It all builds to a rather brash statement of Chopin’s original chorale (with a few extra notes added).
If this has all sounded quite relentless so far—each new section escalating, building, getting louder and faster and more complicated—that’s quite true. It’s a relentless kind of piece, both in its treatment of musical material and in the challenges it presents to the pianist. This is a bit uncharacteristic. Much of my favorite music, especially recent music, is minimal, static, repetitive, completely lacking in baroque, developmental drama. I love writing like that, too, but lately my compositional mood’s been restless, not content to let a piece simply sit and revel in its own sound. I’m not sure why this is, but it doesn’t particularly alarm me. Sometimes I feel more like an interested observer, eager to find out new things from my music, and to be led to them.⁂
I’ve known I would write this particular piece for about a year. That’s a fairly short timeline, from commission to completion, in the so-called Classical Music Industry, which for all I know has probably decided what will happen on the World’s Great Stages in 2022. I’m writing it for a young firebrand-type named Kirill Gerstein, whose career is a refreshing break from the Russian Virtuoso mold; he spent years studying jazz before deciding to return to Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, and has been commissioning a string of new pieces for himself (an alarmingly uncommon practice among today’s major classical players).
All this aside, the only important thing for me in writing for a pianist besides myself is: do I like the way they play the piano? I’m hypercritical of other pianists, to a far greater degree than other instrumentalists; this is as it should be, since it’s the only instrument I have a true technical understanding of how to play.
It’s mostly a matter of taste, though, which is another way of saying that the things I like are somewhat random. The pianist Ivo Pogorelich recorded that Chopin scherzo in the 1980’s, on a bizarre Chopin album that I cherish—it’s unhinged, distorted, completely un-Chopinesque. But it’s convincing; the same cannot be said about most other self-indulgent virtuosi. I’m usually more of a Richard Goode or András Schiff guy, two pianists who put out a steady stream of unimpeachable readings of unimpeachable 19th-century works, year after year. I don’t initially know where Kirill’s playing falls on this oversimplified matrix, but any initial hesitation I may have had about him was dispelled by a concert at Le Poisson Rouge, the underground classical music lair on Bleecker Street. He plays Liszt and it doesn’t sound like “Liszt”—it is gripping and sure-footed in a new way. Virtuosic, too, but not for the sake of virtuosity. There’s a calmly methodical element in his performances, as if his unconventional approach is guided not by hotheaded rebelliousness but by genuine curiosity.
Standards of performance for new music are often lower than those for the classics. I am not certain why this is but here are a few possibilities. Those who are lucky enough to make it as super-virtuosi do so because they play what’s familiar, music that’s time-tested and a reliable palliative to audiences. There’s a long history of performances of those works, so there’s more pressure to perform accurately (people tend to notice when you flub a big chunk of the Moonlight sonata); additionally, it’s easier to make a convincing case for a piece when you’ve listened to all the greatest musicians of the last century play it, thanks to recordings. With brand-new music, technical precision too often becomes the sole concern. The piece is always finished too late, always contains passages that are too difficult. Having the dictatorial composer breathing down your neck doesn’t make learning it any easier. The reverse of the virtuoso problem often, sadly, reveals itself here; a performer’s professed devotion to the new and experimental may be another way of saying that they couldn’t hack it playing the classics. Every composer has sat through excruciating performances of their work, train wrecks that cause fingernails to burrow into palms, breath to constrict, render eye contact impossible for the next several hours. A large part of becoming a professional composer is figuring out how to avoid these situations, though as your music works its way farther afield, the likelihood increases that it will find its way into the wrong hands. I try to maintain an attitude of zen calm about this entire conundrum. I also try to schedule evening “dentist’s appointments” on days when I feel dangerous performances may lurk.
The way to insure that a performance goes well is to write not just for the best musicians you can find, but the best musicians you can find who are your friends. This process should ideally start early, in college. Your friends will, most importantly, feel a personal obligation to do the necessary work; they will also, usually, forgive the impossible string crossings you’ve written, your demands for more rehearsal, your careless cutting remark. They will also be your music’s best stewards out in the Real World. Not everyone you meet in school will go on to be a professional musician, but many will, and it’s exciting to watch your classmates become professional colleagues forging their various paths. Some become teachers or professors, some join orchestras (or conduct them), some form quartets or trios or take up with bands. Some find their way into the more commercial worlds of film and TV music. A very few might establish themselves as soloists. Most do an amalgamation of these things; versatility is key.
All this is to preface: I am quite certain the Kirill Gerstein will do my piece every justice it deserves, and I’m confident that he’ll be able to manage any difficulty I throw his way. It’s a good feeling, and I’m throwing him plenty. Also important: I know I won’t have to learn it myself, at least not for a while. I’m feeling very good about delegating the responsibility.
A strange aspect of writing music for acoustic instruments—a fairly accurate if overly literal description of what I do—is that the basic tools are the same as they were in the nineteenth century, when the symphony orchestra was standardized. Certainly there’s been incremental progress in technique—percussionists play more instruments, winds and brass play higher—but it’s still just applying a bow to a string, passing air over a reed, striking a string with a hammer. I wouldn’t say I compose out of nostalgia, but I do like this element of old-world craft. Orchestra is one of those specific media, like oil paints or marble or 35mm film, which provide a good balance of constraints and possibilities. I never feel boxed in writing for these instruments. Quite the opposite; creating something using 300 years of accumulated tools can be inspiring.
I tend to look backwards a good deal when I’m writing a piece, perhaps more so than other less classically-grounded composers my age. The way I’m using material and making a reference to Chopin is not unique to this particular piece. All music is made from the music which preceded it, and I’m interested in this process of influence and filtering, whether conscious or unconscious. When I hear a new piece of music, I really like being able to parse influences; it generally signifies that the composer wasn’t to concerned with some concept of “originality”, which is a chimera anyway. Every composer can’t possibly rebuild music from scratch, and why shouldn’t listeners be able to guess what music you love and admire most?
Quotations, references, and “borrowing” feel like natural musical phenomena to me. Perhaps because I grew up with the music of Charles Ives—the American composer notorious for co-opting everything from Beethoven and Bach to the latest ragtime marching band tunes—I’ve always liked the way a reference can express something different from its original context. And it doesn’t even have to be something that’s necessarily heard on the surface. When I first started trying to write larger-scale pieces, early in high school, I’d look to other works to use as structural models. I especially admired the way Aaron Copland built his forms, so I’d figure out how he’d put together a sonata or a symphony, and simply fit my own music into the moulds.
This hindsight is also great for a kind of historical decontextualization. It can be a diverting mind-game: what if Brahms had heard Ligeti’s music? What if Mahler had conducted Ives? (this almost happened, actually—one of the great “what ifs” in music history). Brahms looked backwards, too—he knew his Palestrina—and merged what he learned with his 19th-century Viennese mileu. And now I have the distinct advantage of being able to learn from both Brahms and Palestrina. Quotation, even if only I know it’s there, is a way of giving a little tip of the hat to a musician I feel I’ve learned from, or who’s helped me in some way, even if they happen to have been dead for 150 years.
Today was one of those freakishly lovely early spring days, where it seems like all of Brooklyn has decided to emerge en masse from its burrow. Also I reached a “double bar” on my piece. This is not the same thing as being finished with it, but it still feels like a symbolic accomplishment. One doesn’t really plan compositional work down to the day, so reaching such milestones is always a nice surprise. I’m celebrating with a beer on my balcony, watching people come and go from their yoga classes next door.
The great majority of pieces I’ve written end quietly and this one is no exception. I find it difficult to imagine a truly convincing loud ending. I can’t even think of many pieces I like (post Classical-era) that really have satisfying, loud endings. John Adams has a few, though Harmonium, perhaps his grandest piece, ends with a trademark hushed grooves (à la Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians). Messiaen—perhaps a candidate, though I often feel as if he’s reached (religious) climax without me. Everything I try in this vein seems too brash, too eager to please, or somehow un-earned, as though any loud event I write requires a quiet, thoughtful comment to follow. One of my long-term compositional goals is to figure out a way to ‘end with a bang’ but without being too Carmina Burana about it. Perhaps the next piece.
The end is a sort of mirror image of the big, virtuosic opening section—only now it’s extremely quiet, both hands gliding over the keyboard at independent speeds, crossing each other, and going back the other way. It’s all built from the same stuff, but now those arpeggios sound open, distant, almost Impressionistic. Even the harmonic machinations of the quintuplets simply drift away—we’re hearing them from a distance now, and they become a single, large shape rather than lots of tiny inscrutable ones.
After today’s double bar there remain a few things to deal with. One is a title; I simply haven’t come up with anything remotely suitable, even after leafing through all my sketchbooks and post-its full of possibilities. This will take some thought, or maybe some convenient happenstance. I try not to take titles too seriously even though I am very opinionated about them. If the music is good and title mediocre, few will mind. But a really good title can draw the audience in, make them curious, stick in their minds and provide something to mull over for a while. After that first impression, the importance of the title fades away. It’s just a given name, after all; the music is the thing which goes on to lead an actual life. Also it’s gotten pretty tiresome writing an article about a piece which I keep having to call “My New Piece”, like a particularly uninspired third-grader.
Two, a bigger conundrum, is that I need to clean up the notation. My New Piece has ended up being very complex in parts. Even though what I’ve written is for just one musician, there are long sections where the music is essentially of two, three, even four independent “voices” which each move at different speeds, are often in different keys, and occur at different registers of the keyboard. Sometimes they cross each other, passing from treble to bass and hand to hand. What I need to figure out is how to balance the horizontal—keep the musical voices clear and separate—with the vertical, helpfully indicating which notes should be played by what hand.
This is important because notation—the way the composer chooses to convey pitches, rhythms, dynamics, and expressions on the printed page—can have a huge effect on how well the performer is able to receive his or her intentions. There is not usually one single correct way of notating a passage of music, and as complexity increases, so too do the number of possibilities. The 20th century spawned a certain vogue for inventing new notational systems, not based on standard printed music; some of these scores contain instructional prefaces significantly longer than the pieces themselves. I regard this as somewhere between mildly diverting conceptual art and total fraud. The best engravers find an elegant balance somewhere between clearness of intention and graphical cleanliness of the page. You don’t want to overwhelm the performer with direction; this is sure to inspire a wooden, uninspired reading. You want to gently guide them into following your directions, careful to maintain a consistent and unmistakable editorial voice without becoming too didactic. The composer can’t, and shouldn’t, make every single decision; otherwise the performer is rendered a mere robot.
A few days later. I’m in LA for ten days to play a few concerts. On the plane I managed to pry open my laptop and sort out most of the notation issues, and do some last-minute formatting. I’m feeling good about My New Piece, thinking about sending Kirill a PDF in the next week or so. This too feels like an incredibly final step, even though it’s not. Revisions are certainly possible, and to a certain extent, likely. But I haven’t showed him any music yet, and there’s always that low-level fear that revealing the result of the commission will inspire regret.
Also, worryingly, the piece now has a tail. I stayed up late a few nights ago and added a little extra music on the end when I got home, a kind of dour elaboration on the original ending. I haven’t decided how I feel about it in the daylight. Amputation may be necessary.
It doesn’t feel as though I’ve truly done much writing at all, over the past month. There’s always a curious feeling of distance once I’m finished with a piece, as if it were simply extracted from me while under anesthesia. And in fact, I’m only “finished” with one thing: writing down a set of instructions. The real life of the music starts here—rehearsing, practicing, performing, hearing different people play it in different places for different audiences, revising, recording, poring over takes. Only later, after being reminded by these things does the realization set in: “Oh yes, I’m the person who wrote that music”—and by then it’s become an old friend.